Movie Review: Fruitvale Station
Austin360.com | Austin American-Statesman
“Fruitvale Station,” the soul-wrenching first feature from writer/director Ryan Coogler, opens with cellphone footage of real events: On New Year’s Day 2009, after an altercation with Bay Area Rapid Transit police, an unarmed, African-American, 22-year-old father named Oscar Grant was shot in the back, in front of dozens of witnesses, while he was face-down on the BART platform, at least one cop kneeling on him.
It is, by any reasonable standard, a terrifying and brutal sequence.
The rest of “Fruitvale Station” dramatizes events before and after the shooting, with the excellent Michael B. Jordan (still best known, from when he was much younger, as the doomed child Wallace on “The Wire”) painting Grant as a complex and interesting but, above all, regular guy.
Like a lot of people, Grant has a complicated relationship with his girlfriend, Sophina (Melonie Diaz), who is also the mother of his daughter. He wants to do better by both, noting that, per Oprah, it takes only 30 days to form a habit. “Maybe, if I can not (expletive) up for thirty days,” he says, almost to himself.
He loves his mother, Wanda (a note-perfect Octavia Spencer), calling her on her birthday and planning her birthday dinner. He adores his kid, Tatiana (Ariana Neal), picking her up from preschool, making sure she brushes her teeth, the usual dad stuff.
On the flip side, selling weed got him thrown in jail (a flashback jailhouse visit with his mother is handled with tough grace by Jordan and Spencer). He’s not very good at showing up for work on time to his grocery store job, which costs him.
His New Year’s Eve progresses much like anyone’s: He makes plans to see fireworks in the city, discusses the merits of driving into town versus taking public transportation with his mother, buys crabs for dinner.
These are deft, confident touches. Calmly and methodically, Coogler makes the case that in dozens of tiny ways Grant’s life was, above all things, pretty boring. He was, for the most part, no different than millions of other people who weren’t born rich or with resources, neither saintly martyr nor egregious thug.
Coogler even manages to work in one of the smartest, subtlest jokes I have ever heard about white privilege, dropping it into the scene so naturally it’s easy to miss. (It has to do with fish frying and it comes out of the young white lady’s mouth.)
That said, in some ways, this is very much a first film. There are points where the script could be a bit more show-don’t-tell or the dialogue slightly tighter. The camera seems almost hyper in spots, and some will find too much foreshadowing here and there.
A moment where both Grant and a slightly older white man wait for their girls to come out from the bathroom is quietly heart-breaking: “We both have the same problem,” Grant says, in a good mood from a day well spent. Except the white guy is going to be alive tomorrow, and you can almost hear the audience’s stomachs tightening.
The director has gotten a bit of misplaced flak for a scene involving a dog, mostly around the idea that it idealizes Grant. I submit that the scene is a challenge, as if to say to (white?) audiences, “I dare you to focus more on this than the issue at hand.”
But in the end, the focus is exactly where it should be: “Fruitvale Station” shows us the last day of a young man, whose life was like a lot of young men’s, who was shot in the back by public servants, his face against a cold subway platform.